Burma Detains Opposition Activist, Critic of AIDS Policy


Jan. 24, 2006: Burmese orphans infected with the HIV virus are seen together with a caregiver (C), a retired nurse, at a care center for the Happy Heaven Humanitarian Project in Thalyin, near Rangoon. Photo: AFP

BANGKOK-Burmese authorities in the former capital Rangoon have detained an opposition activist and outspoken critic of the junta's AIDS policies, the woman's family has said.

Five male and two female police officers who identified themselves as belonging to the Ministry of Home Affairs took Phyu Phyu Thinn, 35, into custody at her home in Rangoon around 8:15 p.m. on May 21, after assuring her mother they would bring her home at midnight, her relatives said.

The family has received no information about her since, they told RFA's Burmese service. The officers said she was "wanted by higher authorities," the family said. Phyu Phyu Thinn, who suffers from asthma, brought one change of clothing with her, they said.

Authorities may have pegged her as the architect of a plan to organize mass prayers for the release of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whose house arrest was ultimately extended May 25, they said.

"They said they wanted to question Ma Phyu Phyu Thinn, seven of them, and they took her away," her mother, Daw Khin Shwe, said.

Officials in Rangoon couldn't be reached to comment.

Activist and AIDS caretaker

Phyu Phyu Thinn has volunteered with Aung San Suu Kyi's opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) in caring for HIV and AIDS patients since 2002 at her home in Rangoon's Dagon township, her family said.

She was previously detained for four months while traveling with NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi in 2000.

In January, Phyu Phyu Thinn publicly complained that Rangoon facilities treating HIV/AIDS patients had stopped providing antiretroviral (ARV) drugs for new patients because supplies were exhausted.

In an interview before her detention, Phyu Phyu Thinn suggested that mortality among AIDS patients in Burma could be far higher than the official tally-and climbing since NGO clinics had stopped giving out ARVs.

"Currently, we are sending many patients to hospitals and clinics. We are constantly in touch with the patients," Phyu Phyu Thinn said May 15. "When patients learned that they weren't getting more ARVs, many people became discouraged and died."

Throughout Burma, she said, "we know that the death rate from this disease is high."

"ARV medication is no longer distributed in NGO clinics. Because of that, we are seeing an increase in the number of deaths.People don't know that there are medicines like these, and they don't know how to treat [this disease] either," she said. "We find in some places that they are treating it with Burmese herbal medicines. When it is treated this way, not only is it ineffective, they spend a lot of money, and it endangers their lives."

"We can't reduce the death rate with such little help. Many people still need ARV medicines that can control HIV. Until these medicines can be put directly into the hands of patients throughout the country, the death rate will be high."

The ruling junta doesn't keep a record of AIDS deaths, she said, suggesting mortality may be far higher than reported. "For some, when they die at home, on the death certificates, they list all kinds of other diseases but do not mention that it is from HIV/AIDS. In some regions, there are many who didn't go to the hospitals or clinics. They didn't know they had HIV/AIDS and so they died from it. Actually, the authorities should be working on it systematically-what is the rate of those dying from HIV and the cause of death? They're not doing these things.There are no instructions, and they don't want people to know about it, so they are not paying attention to this matter. Whatever the cause of death is, they just leave it be."

Prison steeled her, sisters say

Phyu Phyu Thinn's younger sister, Ma Sabeh Oo, said her sister's previous detention turned her into an activist. "In the year 2000, she traveled with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, there was some commotion, and she was arrested and put in prison."

"In prison, she saw the opposition government. She realized that everyone had sacrificed for this work. She saw many people in prison like that. It outraged her, and she made a decision right there in prison that she would become involved in politics. She was imprisoned for more than four months. Then she was released. She began to do this work after her release."

Phyu Phyu Thinn attended HIV and AIDS training sessions run by the NLD and by the UN Development Programme (UNDP), and then she began working in rural areas.

"She took the patients to their clinics. She knows how to take care of them and encourage them, and that's how it got started," Ma Sabeh Oo said.

Her older sister, Ma San San Oo, said Phyu Phyu Thinn tried to demonstrate non-discrimination against HIV and AIDS patients.

"She lived by example and corrected our misconceptions. She worked well with all her mind and might. When she's taking care of patients, she's not like ordinary people. She doesn't shrink from the patients. Some patients had sores. We told her, 'You're going to become infected,' but she said, 'No, we need to be close to the patients. Only then, will they understand us, and it'll be easier to treat them.'"

"When these patients first came to our house and ate their meals with us, we felt uncomfortable. Later, we got used to it, and we forgot that they were patients. Before she left for work, there'd already be about 10 or 15 at our house. At first when eating, we'd like to clear away the things.

Later, after seeing her, we mingled with them and ate and drank together," Ma San San Oo said.

Patients at a loss

"For me as well as for other patients, we are all in trouble because of Ma Phyu's arrest," said HIV patient Ma Aye, from Kyauk Badaung.

"We have not received our medicines, which she administers. Emotionally, we are very discouraged because she's not around. All of our other patients are sad and crying. We don't know what to do."

Intimidation, poor treatment

Opposition activists have accused the junta of intimidating HIV/AIDS patients and their supporters.

And while Burma has one of the highest rates of HIV infection in Asia, estimated at 1.2 percent of adults, fears that aid money could be misdirected by the secretive junta has left donors reluctant to contribute proportionately.

An estimated 339,000 people were infected with HIV at the end of 2004, according to the military government's National AIDS Program-nearly double the estimated 177,279 cases reported at the end of March 2002.

In the last three years, the junta has opened up to about 30 international agencies working to fight the disease, but their activities remain limited.

Volunteers say the junta's attitude toward HIV prevention has improved recently, after officials denied its rapid spread throughout the 1990s.

Original reporting by May Pyone Aung for RFA's Burmese service. Edited by Khin May Zaw. Service director: Nancy Shwe. Produced in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.


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